Montana, WTP, and the Supreme Court: A Tale of Irony — Part 2

by Kellye

In Part 1 on this subject (here), the history behind Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which made corporate contributions in state elections illegal, and the Montana Supreme Court case involving Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), which upheld Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, are discussed.

Since the decision of the Montana Supreme Court contradicted the Citizens United ruling, WTP (now American Tradition Partnership, Inc. or ATP) appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in American Tradition Partnership, Inc., v. Bullock, via a per curiam opinion (without hearing testimony) that the state of Montana had to accept the Citizens United decision. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court majority said that there was no evidence of anything corrupting about independent spending. In the absence of evidence that WTP was coordinating with the candidates, there was nothing that Montana could do.

But here is where the irony comes into play, in the form of boxes found in a Colorado meth house. These boxes, which were received five months after Montana ended its investigation of WTP, were stuffed with documents related to WTP and other similar groups in Montana. These included memos, candidate questionnaires, wife questionnaires, and letters ostensibly written by both candidates and their wives. These letters became part of direct mail efforts funded by WTP. Clearly, the “social welfare” group was coordinating with the candidates. The so-called independent expenditures were not actually independent at all. This was the evidence that SCOTUS said it was looking for to establish corruption or the appearance of corruption (quid pro quo).

Other items in the boxes included sheets of paper covered with candidate signatures, some of which had been cut out and pasted onto campaign materials. These materials were then distributed by WTP and related nonprofit organizations.

In 2012, PBS Frontline featured the Montana story in a segment called “Big Sky, Big Money.” Since then, the ironic tale has continued. In 2013, a Montana court ruled that WTP used deception to avoid disclosure of its donors. The court declared that WTP was a political committee that created “sham” nonprofits so that it would not have to disclose.

Beginning in 2014, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices investigated nine candidates who were believed to have colluded with WTP in the 2010 election campaign. One of these candidates, Joel Boniek, was found guilty of corruption last week by a Montana court. The judge in the case stated that Boniek had personal knowledge of the direct mail campaign that WTP conducted for him and that he provided “general campaigning authority, including his signature, to WTP.” The judge accused Boniek of “quid pro quo corruption.” Boniek had received the benefit of a direct mail campaign for which “he did not pay, report or disclose.” In return, Boniek promised “unswerving fealty to the corporations carrying out the direct mail campaign.”

Two other candidates have settled the complaints, and one more is expected to settle, but the rest seem determined to go to court.

Will any of these cases get to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Montana’s evidence that big money causes corruption can be considered? Will the Supreme Court realize that independent spending may not be independent at all? It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

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